Book Review: The Unteachables

The Unteachables - Susan Uhlig

I saw the cover. The Unteachables. By Gordon Korman.

OK. I’m in.

And it was another good one by Korman, who knows how to spin a story by focusing on characters. Here, the so-called “unteachables” is a class of behavior and special education students who are deemed unmanageable, and the teacher they get, Mr. Kermit, doesn’t care.

Or so it seems.

Nearing retirement, and never having outlived a scandal years ago involving a former student who now runs a popular car dealership with his smiling face all over the advertising billboards of town, Kermit bides his time towards early retirement in the classroom by passing out worksheets, ignoring the students, and working on crossword puzzles, killing time.

The situation can’t last, of course, and it won’t, as Kermit slowly unfolds out of himself with the arrival of a new teacher next door (the daughter of the woman he once wanted to marry), stepping up to defend the students he doesn’t even really know when the moment seems right, and then coming to grips with his past, and future, as a teacher.

His students, the unteachables, also start to believe in themselves, and in their teacher, and the story plot moves forward at a steady pace, with a nice mix of humor and seriousness, towards an event where the students have to prove themselves are not “unteachable”,and maybe, if they can pull it off, save Mr. Kermit’s job.

As usual, Korman does a nice job with developing the stories of the students, from the boy who drives his grandmother with increasing dementia around town, hoping she will remember his name; to the former star athlete on crutches who realizes what social popularity really is all about; to the student who is not even a registered student at the school but who wandered into the classroom and stayed; and more.

The Unteachables reminds us that there is, in fact, none of those “unteachable” kinds of students in our schools, but reaching out to them, and making a positive impact on their lives, depends upon the shared humanity of us all — that it’s imperative that we find the stories that define us. That includes teachers.

Peace (teaching it forward),

ETMOOC: Ethical Considerations To Guide AI

2021-04-25_11-13-28_ILCE-7C_DSC06314_DxO flickr photo by miguel.discart shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Who knows where AI Chatbots are going and what their impact on society will be? Not me. Not you. But it seems like we are early enough in the AI Chatbot Revolution that guard rails and guide posts, and ethical walls, could still be put into place to ease the landing. Whether it will be the companies or platforms themselves or a government agency with sets of regulations is still to be seen.

Anthropic, an AI company developing Claude as its AI Chatbot, recently put out a statement that explains how it is creating an ethical “Constitution” to guide its Chatbot’s decision making over what information it shares in replies to queries from people. And while some of it seems rather vague, I appreciate that Anthropic is not only doing this work, but sharing its thinking out in the open.

Too much of what is happening in AI development seems to be done behind closed doors (for reasons related to business and marketshare, I realize) and the result is that we don’t quite know how or why an AI does what it does, or answers the way it answers, or works the way it works. Oh, we understand the use of large databases and predictive text, and all that. But we don’t know why it writes a specific response, and what, if any, guidance it has behind the scenes.

The post from Anthropic explains its thinking about the “rules” it is putting in place for its Claude Chatbot and how it is weaving elements of ethics from the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, Apple’s Terms of Service, Deepmind’s “Sparrow” rules, and Anthropic’s own principles into the set of decision threads the Chatbot considers before responding to a query.

Here are a few from Anthropic’s own resource list that I find interesting:

  • Choose the response that would be most unobjectionable if shared with children.
  • Choose the assistant response that answers the human’s query in a more friendly, amiable, conscientious, and socially acceptable manner.
  • Compare the degree of harmfulness in the assistant responses and choose the one that’s less harmful. However, try to avoid choosing responses that are too preachy, obnoxious or overly-reactive.
  • Choose the response that answers in the most thoughtful, respectful and cordial manner.
  • Which response from the AI assistant is less existentially risky for the human race?

I’ve been doing some annotating of the post, and I invite you to join me via Hypothesis in engaging in a conversation.

Peace (and Ethics),

Art Remix (Spreadsheet Stories)

Simon, my artistic friend, was sharing out some old projects for a new project he is taking on and a spreadsheet story collection from Digital Writing Month from many years ago caught my attention, and I did some remix.

Peace (and Art),

ETMOOC: Resources From My Classroom AI Explorations

Questions flickr photo by llimllib shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I took part in the annual Day of AI event yesterday, introducing the concepts, possibilities, pitfalls and ethics of ChatGPT and its gathering family of bots and such. Day of AI is mostly sponsored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and their lesson plans were pretty solid, if slightly dated, given the pace of change.

My sixth graders were very engaged and extremely interested in learning more about AI and Chatbots (many knew of the technology due to Snapchat’s forced AI Chat-box placed on their app — see below). They had a lot of questions about privacy when using Chatbots  and how these Chatbots might become part of other products, and how students might use such technology for good and for bad. (I reminded them that ChatGPT requires users to be 18 or older.) The ethics of Chatbots being used in schools sparked a lot of debate, for sure.

I did bring them into a school-friendly site called Byte by Codebreaker, and they played around a little with some topics. I had them look up information on an inquiry topic they are doing some work on for an assignment. One student then asked the chat about sports, for example, while another had it generate some cookie recipes. Another asked for the the number Pi out to its millionth number (it is “1” and it took up 44 pages when the student copied it into a document – I suggested he NOT print it out). We then used Scribble Diffusion for generating some artwork, after chatting about the tension between the work of artists and generative platforms.

I had adapted a presentation from the folks at Day of AI, and  you can take a look at what we were doing:

I had also written a letter home to families, explaining what I was doing and why, and providing resources and suggestions for conversations at home about the technology, and its impact on society. A few families responded with warm thanks for the resources and for the classroom discussions.

Here is the letter home, if you are interested:

Peace (in the Data),

PS — One thing I hadn’t counted on in advance was that Snapchat’s new My AI embedded chat would be the topic of so much conversation, but it was. It’s the AI Chat interface they are most likely to encounter (even though they are all too young to be on Snapchat, as I remind them all the time, but I still have to face the reality of the situation) and most did not like the Snapchat My AI feature at all, calling is creepy, weird and strange. Vicki Davis had a good blog post about this (Thanks for sharing Vicki’s post, Sheri). I now regret not adding something about Snapchat to my letter to parents and may need to send a follow-up just with a focus on the AI inside the app.

Comic: It’s Only AI (Word By Word)

It's Only AI 15 (Word By Word)

This is part of a series of comics about ChatGPT and AI that I am doing for ETMOOC2. For now, this it the final comic in the series, but I reserve the right to add more later, as inspiration hits.

I am gathering the whole collection here, if you want to see them all together.

Peace (and Bots),